The Clean Power Plan Goes to Court: A Crucial Moment in Our Fight against Climate Change

, lead economist and climate policy manager | September 27, 2016, 11:12 am EST
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Today, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a case related to the Clean Power Plan. It’s a key moment in our nation’s efforts to fight climate change. History won’t look back kindly on those who are standing in the way of progress, despite the clear signs that clean energy is already delivering economic and public health benefits and the need to act on climate is urgent.

The Clean Power Plan has widespread support

A majority of Americans, including in states suing the EPA, support the Clean Power Plan. A broad and diverse coalition of business, religious, labor, health, and environmental groups, retired military representatives, and states and local municipalities have also registered their strong support for the Clean Power Plan.

Legal experts believe it has a firm legal foundation. The naysayers are by far in the minority.

Clean energy momentum

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

Our nation is already undergoing a significant shift toward cleaner electricity generation resources, with carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector in 2015 at their lowest level since 1993. Nationwide, more than 62 gigawatts (GW) of coal power capacity has retired since 2010, and another 21 GW are slated for closure through 2020.

At the same time, we are seeing record amounts of renewable energy deployment. In 2015, wind capacity additions outpaced all other sources including natural gas. In 2016, utility-scale solar capacity additions are on track to be the leading source of these additions.

Renewable energy is rapidly becoming one of the cheapest sources of power. In the last five years, solar costs have fallen by up to 65 percent and deployment has increased tenfold, reaching over one million solar installations across the country, according to the DOE. Wind turbine prices have fallen 20 to 40 percent since 2008.

Globally, wind and solar costs are projected to continue to decline. A report from IRENA anticipates that by 2025 solar PV costs could fall by as much as 59 percent, concentrating solar power (CSP) could fall by up to 43 percent and onshore wind could see a decline of 26 percent. It’s no wonder that industry experts predict a bright future for wind and solar, and a continued decarbonization of the energy system.

Many leading clean energy states, including California, Oregon, Massachusetts and New York, have taken dramatic steps in 2016 to (further) cut their emissions.

Even states that are suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan are making significant progress toward curbing emissions and deploying renewable energy. For example, Texas led the nation in wind energy installations in 2015. North Carolina has shuttered or plans to close 30 percent of its coal power capacity and has become a national leader in solar deployment. Similarly, Oklahoma plans to cut its coal capacity nearly in half over the next decade and is poised to soon pass California for the nation’s third spot in wind power development.

All this momentum means that meeting the goals of the Clean Power Plan is already well within reach for many states.

We still need policies to accelerate the clean energy transition

The market trends for clean energy are very positive. But we don’t have much time to make deep cuts in emissions if we want to limit some of the worst impacts of climate change. That means we need a policy boost to accelerate the trends already underway. The Clean Power Plan, together with other state and federal policies, will provide that much-needed boost.

We also have the opportunity to do the right thing for coal miners and communities that are hurting from the eroding economics of coal. As my colleague Jeremy Richardson recently wrote, Congress can and should support coal communities.

We know we’ll need more, and stronger, policies to get us all the way to our climate goals. We simply can’t turn back the clock on progress.

The Clean Power Plan is necessary to deliver on our climate goals

That’s where the Clean Power Plan comes in. These historic, first-ever limits on power plant carbon emissions provide a powerful long-term signal about which way our power markets are oriented. Without it, we won’t have the certainty that we’ll see the steady progress on emissions reductions that we need.

What’s more, the Clean Power Plan gives states the flexibility to chart a clean energy transition that best suits their circumstances. There are a variety of compliance options, including shifting to more renewable energy and energy efficiency, retiring coal plants and replacing them with cleaner generating sources, improving plant-level efficiency, and building new nuclear plants.

States can also use trading programs and join together to find the most cost-effective options to cut emissions, replicating the success of the RGGI program in the Northeast.

State compliance plans must also ensure that environmental justice components are incorporated in a robust way so that the health and economic benefits of clean energy flow to all communities.

Delivering on the Paris Climate Agreement

The Clean Power Plan is central to our ability to deliver on our Paris commitment goals, a point the Union of Concerned Scientists has registered clearly in our amicus brief filed before the DC Circuit Court.

Last December over 190 countries came together to sign the landmark Paris Agreement. The Clean Power Plan is a centerpiece of the US international emissions reduction commitment of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, a contribution made ahead of the Paris climate meeting.

We’ll need to do more to meet this goal and to get to net zero emissions by mid-century, in line with the long term goals of the Paris Agreement. But without the Clean Power Plan, our ability to deliver on our Paris commitments will be in serious jeopardy and that could give our partner nations cause for concern.

US leadership has been critical to securing cooperation from other nations in the global efforts to limit climate change. As of last week, 61 parties representing nearly 48 percent of global heat-trapping emissions have ratified the Paris Agreement. The US, along with China, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and others was one of the early actors. India will shortly be ratifying too.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has indicated that he has secured commitments from enough countries that they will ratify the Paris Agreement, such that it will enter into force this year (perhaps even by the time we get to COP22 in Marrakech). It’s pretty extraordinary to see a global agreement of this kind come into force within a year of being agreed to!

Let’s be on the right side of history

We’ve already waited too long to act on climate. Climate impacts are already all around us, in the form of record global average temperatures, heat waves, drought, extreme precipitation contributing to deadly and costly floods, wildfires, and more. We still have the opportunity to act now to head off some of the worst impacts of climate change, acting in concert with the global community.

We know we can cost-effectively cut the emissions that are fueling climate change. The current clean energy momentum is blazing a path forward—and we can do much more with robust policies.

Yet some states and fossil fuel companies, and their allies in Congress, continue to focus on their narrow self-interests and stand in the way of progress on climate action.

Let’s urge our nations’ courts and policymakers to stand on the right side of history, today and as the Clean Power Plan and other more ambitious policies move toward implementation in the years ahead.

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